Left Arm Pain: 11 Common Causes & What To Do

Medical review: Dr. Clarisse Bezerra
Family Doctor
November 2022

Left arm pain can emerge for many reasons. It commonly occurs due to tendon inflammation or bursitis in the shoulder, elbows or wrist, however it may also be a sign of compressed nerves in the area. 

Left arm pain can also be a sign of an emergency situation, like a heart attack, angina or arm fracture. Therefore, it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect any of these conditions.  

Depending on its underlying cause, left arm pain can be accompanied by other symptoms, like arm swelling, muscle weakness, tingling or joint rigidity. These symptoms should be assessed by a doctor to indicate the best treatment.

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Causes of left arm pain

The most common causes of left arm pain include:

1. Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when there is decreased blood flow to the heart, resulting in cellular death. It can cause chest pain that radiates to the left arm, which is very characteristic of a heart attack. 

This chest and arm pain can be accompanied by other symptoms, like dizziness, general malaise, nausea, cold sweats or pallor. Read more about the symptoms of a heart attack that you shouldn’t ignore.

What to do: If you notice any of these symptoms, you should go to the hospital or call 911, especially if you have a history of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity or high cholesterol. 

2. Angina

Angina is characterized by the feeling of chest heaviness, tightness or pain that can radiate to the arm, shoulder or neck. It is also caused by decreased blood flow in the arteries that provide oxygen to the heart. Angina is generally triggered by strenuous activity or intense emotions. 

What to do: Treatment depends on the type of angina the patient is presenting with. The doctor will often prescribe anticoagulants, vasodilators and/or beta-blockers. 

3. Bursitis

Bursitis is the inflammation of a bursa, which is a small sac of fluid found within joints. These sacs reduce friction between tendons and bones, but can become inflamed with injury or overuse. Inflammation of the bursa can prompt symptoms like shoulder or arm pain, difficulty lifting the arm above the head, muscular weakness and tingling that radiates down the arm. 

What to do: Bursitis can be treated with anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, rest and physiotherapy. 

4. Fracture

An arm, elbow or clavicle fracture can cause pain anywhere along the arm. Most people will also experience swelling, visible deformity, inability to move the arm, bruising, numbness and tingling in the arm. 

Arm injuries or direct trauma without fractures can also cause pain that lasts for days. 

What to do: If you suspect your arm is fractured, you should seek medical attention immediately. The doctor will likely assess the area and order an x-ray. Treatment involves immobilization of the arm, analgesic and anti-inflammatory medication, and physiotherapy. 

5. Cervical disc hernia 

A herniated disc is an intervertebral disc in the spine that has bulged out of its spot. Depending on the area of the spine, it can cause symptoms like back pain that radiates to the arms and neck, weakness, tingling and difficulty moving the neck or lifting your arms. Learn more about the different types of hernias and what can cause them. 

What to do: Generally, herniated discs are treated conservatively with analgesics, anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, osteopathy and exercises like water aerobics or Pilates. 

6. Tendinitis

Tendinitis is the inflammation of the tendons caused by repetitive movements. Shoulder, elbow or arm tendinitis can cause symptoms like pain that can radiate to the arm, difficulty moving the arm, arm weakness, or stabbing, cramping shoulder pain. 

What to do: Tendinitis can be treated with analgesics and anti-inflammatories. Cold compresses on the affected area can also help, however it is important to discontinue the activity that triggered inflammation. 

In addition to all the above-mentioned causes, left arm pain can also be related to rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Sjögren syndrome.

6. Poor circulation

Poor circulation in the left arm from a blood clot or thrombosis can leave the arm feeling heavy and cause tingling or swelling. It may also alter hand color, and leave the hands with a pale or purple appearance. 

What to do: You should consult a doctor if you suspect poor circulation. The doctor will evaluate the arm with a thorough assessment and further testing, like ultrasounds or dopplers. Treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may involve increasing fluid intake, exercises, or medications for more severe cases. 

8. Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy occurs due to persistently high blood sugar levels, which can cause damage to the nerves in the body. It can affect the arms, hands or feet and lead to symptoms like sharp pain, burning, tingling and numbness. 

Diabetic neuropathy generally affects people with unmanaged diabetes who do not adhere to prescribed treatment.

What to do: Blood sugar levels should be controlled as directed by an endocrinologist. The doctor may prescribe antidiabetic medications, like insulin, to normalize blood sugar levels. Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy can be managed with anticonvulsant, antidepressants or opioids, like pregabalin, amitriptyline or tramadol.  

9. Rheumatoid arthritis

Left arm pain can occur due to rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease. It occurs when the immune system produces antibodies that attack other healthy cells in the body, causing inflammation in the joints. 

When rheumatoid arthritis affects the shoulder, elbow or wrist, it can cause persistent pain in the left and/or right arm, swelling, difficulty holding objects and even joint deformity. 

What to do: Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis should be guided by a rheumatologist and includes the use of medications, an anti-inflammatory diet and physiotherapy. Treatment is aimed at relieving pain and swelling to improve quality of life. 

10. Thoracic outlet syndrome 

Thoracic outlet syndrome, which occurs due to compression of nerves and/or blood vessels in between the clavicle and first rib, may also cause left arm pain. 

Generally, thoracic outlet syndrome emerges due to injuries in the area from direct trauma, accidents or repetitive movements. It also commonly affects athletes. Symptoms that can occur with this condition can include arm pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, tingling and difficulty moving the arms. 

What to do: Treatment for thoracic outlet syndrome should be guided by an orthopedic surgeon, who may prescribe analgesics, anti-inflammatories, anticoagulants, physiotherapy or even surgery. 

11. Rotator cuff injury 

Left arm pain can occur due to an injury in the rotator cuff, which is made up of 4 muscles and 4 tendons that help to move the shoulders. 

Injuries in this area can occur due to inflammation from overuse, irritation or repetitive movements. It is most common in athletes and people who work with heavy loads. Symptoms of this condition include pain that worsens with movements, arm weakness and difficulty completing activities of daily living. 

What to do: Treatment for rotator cuff injuries should be directed by a orthopedic surgeon. Treatment is aimed at reducing swelling within the shoulder joint and promoting healing, and may involve cold compresses, physiotherapy, anti-inflammatory medications and corticosteroid injections to the shoulder. 

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Edited by Tua Saude editing team in November 2022. Medical review completed by Dr. Clarisse Bezerra - Family Doctor in June 2022.

References

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  • JONES, M. R.; et al. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review of Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Pain Ther. 8. 1; 5–18, 2019
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Medical review:
Dr. Clarisse Bezerra
Family Doctor
Dr. Bezerra possesses a medical degree and specializes in family medicine. She is licensed to practice under CRM-CE licence #16976.